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PROGRESS: Relay for Life celebrates 20 years in Gwinnett

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan . Survivors circle the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in the "Survivor Lap" during the Gwinnett County Relay for Life in Lawrenceville on Friday.

DULUTH -- What once started as a small event held at South Gwinnett High School is now an overnight party for the thousands at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.

That's right. It's Relay for Life.

This year, the Gwinnett chapter is celebrating its 20th anniversary without all of the bells and whistles. Instead of planning a fireworks display, helium balloons or crepe party streamers, the nonprofit wants folks to participate in teams to help with the fight against cancer.

"The biggest celebration we can have is overwhelming community support," said Linda Cerjan, Gwinnett's senior income manager. "We'd really like all of those folks out there who have ever had a Relay team to join back in for the celebration."

When the event was initially launched two decades ago, relayers were able to raise $119,926. By 1999, the group surpassed the $1 million mark. For several years, the Gwinnett chapter collected more than $2 million from the public. Last year, the group was able to donate $1.87 million to the American Cancer Society.

But where does the money go? Research, education and support, like patients receiving wigs at no cost, Look Good, Feel Better classes at both local hospitals and smoking cessation classes.

"We definitely strengthened the programs in our own community over the years," Cerjan said. "Relay has helped to heighten awareness about the ACS, the role we play in research and also help patients who are battling cancer."

The latest research endeavour is Cancer Prevention Study 3, or CPS-3, a national cancer prevention study. Anyone between ages 30 and 65 with no personal history of cancer is eligible to participate in the study that involves a simple blood sample and a series of questionnaires.

There are two open enrollment periods in Gwinnett where people can sign up and participate in the study on the same day. The Robert D. Fowler Family YMCA at 5600 West Jones Bridge Road in Norcross will allow people in March 5 and 6, while J.M. Tull-Gwinnett Family YMCA at 2985 Sugarloaf Parkway in Lawrenceville is open for the study March 5 and 7.

Those interested in volunteering for CPS-3 need to schedule an appointment first. To reserve a date and time, visit www.cps3atlanta.com.

The initial study in the series, CPS-1, helped establish the link between smoking and lung cancer decades ago. CPS-2 linked obesity to cancer risk.

Beside working hard to fight cancer, participants can have fun while raising money, too -- especially at the overnight event in May, Cerjan said.

"The night is a lot of fun and fellowship," she said. "For a lot of people, the luminary session is their favorite. It gives people time to reflect. ... It's kind of fun in the wee hours of the night to watch teens bonds with each other. It's a real time of community and unity for those who fight this battle."

The 2013 Relay for Life event is on May 10-11. For more information about how to sign up for a team, donate to the cause or learn about CPS-3, visit www.gwinnettrelayforlife.org.